When the harsh wind and cold of the winter season slowly settle in, most birds make their way southwards before the conditions get too harsh.
The cold is a cruel and harsh contender that seeps in through the bones and the birds make their escape fairly quickly.
Not all of them, of course, but there is one particular bird who not only stays put at home but also stands for hours on ice without a single care in the world, or so it seems.
Even us humans, inside our cozy little houses, bundle up in a variety of blankets, sweaters, and socks to brave the cold coming in through the floors, and here are gulls standing barefoot on ice like it’s nothing.
So we have to wonder, what magical ability given by nature allows the gulls to hang about as they do in the harshest weather conditions without getting cold feet?
Their body is covered by the best and most effective winter jackets – with air and body heat trapped between the layers of feathers that keep their body warm and cozy, one of the most perfect insulating systems.
But what about their feet though?
They are thin without any extra fat deposits on them, with no protective feathered coating, nothing preventing the cold from entering their feet?
How are they able to brave the cold with such vulnerable appendages? Well, today we are going to look at exactly that, so let’s just get into it.
The Surprising Anatomy Of Gull’s Feet
The lower leg or the tarsus of birds is a single bone that comes about as a result of the fusion between the remaining metatarsals of the arch and ankle bones.
In gulls, the bones of their legs are actually the heaviest bones in their skeleton. They also have webbed feet, which means they have a thin membrane between their toes, connecting them.
As opposed to the rest of the body, which is covered in white plumage that traps air and helps the bird keep its body warm during colder months, its legs are reddish and brownish black, and thin without any form of insulation to brave the cold.
Thus, if gulls are standing on ice for as long as they are, that makes up a lot of heat loss through their feet which it would have to account for in impossibly non-sustainable ways like raising their metabolic rate by eating more or by increasing their physical activity.
The warm blood that travels to the feet of the gull would get cooled down by the harsh cold conditions it comes into contact with and then travels back to the core of the gull’s body.
So how do they deal with this? Well, like with most things, nature has thought of the perfect solution!
How Do Seagulls Deal With Cold Feet? Countercurrent Heat Exchange
We humans are more vulnerable to the cold and get frostbites because the harsh cold conditions reduce the proper blood flow that is required to keep our body heat constant.
When this blood flow is reduced, the warmth that our blood is supposed to give our fingers and toes is not received, and hence they freeze and die.
Though there are some birds whose feathers go all the way down to their feet like snowy owls, gulls, like most birds, do not enjoy the same privilege of the protection and insulation on their feet.
Thus, to prevent the same sort of heat loss as in humans, gulls have the most wonderful countercurrent heat exchange system.
For thermoregulation, this mechanism puts the main artery that carries the warm blood from the body to the feet and the main vein that carries cold blood from the feet to the body of the gull lies really close to one another.
A little shunt-like compartment to the base allows for the blood to pass directly into the vein without having any further heat loss by traveling to the webs and toes of the birds.
What are the main artery and vein sitting close together supposed to do? we hear you ask.
Well, this is where it gets truly fascinating. They not only lie side by side but are also accompanied by a complex web of arteries and veins meeting one another to increase the surface area of heat transfer.
What happens is that the venous cold blood absorbs heat from the artery that is carrying the warm blood from the body and vice versa!
It acts like a mutual heat and cold exchange system that works wonderfully in ensuring that no excessive heat loss happens that the gull cannot account for.
So that is how gulls are able to stand on ice for hours without freezing their toes or their webs off. The wonderful heat exchange system allotted to them allows them to stay at home without any concern about the cold ruining their homestay plans.
We hope you learned something new today about the bird world and also answered your question.
Thank you for reading!
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